Megan Bryanton

April 2017


Megan Bryanton is a 2017 recipient of our post-doctoral fellowship. We spoke to her about her background in kinetics and her study, "Sensory reweighting of light touch during standing in Parkinson's Disease and healthy older adults".

Parkinson Association of Alberta (PA): Can you give us a bit of background about yourself?


Megan Bryanton (MB): I’m a post-doctoral fellow at the sensory motor research laboratory in the department of occupational therapy at the University of Alberta and my background is biomechanics and motorcontrol. Looking at control of posture and gait of various populations from healthy people to people with Parkinson’s  is my new focus.

I’m from Prince Edward Island; I did my bachelor’s there and then I did my Masters at the University of Alberta in physical education and recreation and I did my PhD at the university of Ottawa in Human Kinetics and now I’m back for my post doc.


(PA): Why did you choose to pursue the study of kinetics?


(MB): My background is in strength and conditioning and my Master’s was on the biomechanics of squatting. It evolved into looking into healthy young adult athletic populations. I wanted to take what I learned there and apply it to more special populations and how people compensate during different situations, whether it’s fatigue or muscle weakness. That lead me to the university of Ottawa where I looked at “sit/stand”, so a similar movement to squatting, but in healthy older adults. There were so many unanswered questions when it came to biomechanics that  Now I’m moving over to the motor control side. For example, how does the nervous system control how we move and how that may be effective because of aging and neurodegenerative decline.


(PA): How would you explain your research to someone without a medical background?


(MB): In our lab we’ve been looking at healthy adults. So what we’re looking at now is standing and balance—how people prevent themselves from falling. What we look at is how an individual can incorporate different sources of sensory feedback in order to detect their body orientation space and how to correct for any loss of balance. We’re also looking at how light touch, like a walker or safety rail, things that aren’t enough to offer mechanical support, but just lightly touching. It’s been shown to improve balance.

We’re taking that and asking, “How does a person incorporate sensory feedback from their fingers? Are they just getting more information to have better balance? Or are they relying more on what their finger senses and reducing reliance on other sources such as their muscle sense or body sense?" 

This is going to be important for Parkinson’s because they have greater motor symptoms that put them at a greater risk of falling. Looking at how they incorporate this light touch sensory feedback in different environments—with their eyes closed, touching at different pressures. Are they able to use it as effectively as an age- matched person?

We’ll be working with Dr. Fang Ba the University of Alberta. She already does Parkinson’s research and does a lot with deep brain stimulation. She’ll be our liaison for recruiting and diagnosing what stage people are at. She’ll be our intermediary.


(PA): What is “sensory reweighting”?


(MB): It either means that you increase reliance on one sensory source (vision, muscle/touch sense from fingers) or if you’re just getting more information to your brain as an aid.

In older adults, they tend to rely more on vision than any other source. If they’re in a situation with low or dim light it’s putting them at risk at falling.

We want to look at people with Parkinson’s they have motor flexibility, they have a hard time adapting when the sensory condition changes. We want to look at how well they can use that light touch fingertip sense.


(PA): Loss of balance is one of the most debilitating symptoms of Parkinson disease and falls are an unfortunate consequence. 


(MB): My supervisor, John Misiaszek, looks more at the basic science—the sensory motor mechanisms. If this project is successful we can take what we learned and move on to maybe an intervention or something like that.


(PA): What do you hope to accomplish with your research?


(MB): We hope to contribute to development of strategies to manage the disorder and rehab strategies for clinicians and researchers using different types of walkers, canes, and safety rails to improve balance.


(PA):What are the next steps?


(MB): With research, you always say, “we’re going to do this and this and this, and hopefully we’ll figure out this,”, but then you get pulled into four or five different directions and it develops into this new, fun side track that you never thought you’d be in. I would like to eventually do an intervention-type study but for now it’s just looking at “what are these mechanisms that explains why their balance deteriorates?” and this is going to be really important because the Canadian population is aging and Parkinson’s is associated with later in life so the frequency of Parkinson's will probably go up. It will be important for government and other resources to understand why people fall and that will help contribute to preventative or even restorative interventions.

We’re not quite sure of the mechanisms yet so we’re hoping we can figure it out. 


(PA):The Parkinson’s-related research occurring in Alberta is world-renowned. It’s difficult to speculate, of course, but do you foresee a day where we at least have a better understanding of Parkinson disease and a way to better way to control it? 


(MB): With technology now, we have so many different pieces of the puzzle and so many people doing this type of research all over the world. It’s just taking the time and making the links between the studies—that’s when things really happen with understanding disease.

One of the reasons I went into Parkinson’s research is because there’s new research that shows how dopamine regulates the ability to switch your motor set. That means “I’m in this situation, I have all this information form the environment that’s going to depict how my muscles work to maintain my balance. But if that changes, I have to adapt and quickly switch my motor set to a new muscle response. Dopamine has actually been implicated in the ability to switch to a new motor set.


(PA): Many people don’t realize “being active” doesn’t require going to the gym for hours. Walking for 20 minutes per day can make a difference. How valuable is exercise for disease prevention (PD)?


(MB): I think it’s everything. That’s why I went to special populations. Because everything we know about strength and conditioning we’re trying to get people who are healthy and make them move better, why can’t we do the same for people who are experiencing unavoidable muscle weakness or motor symptoms?

I find that, especially with biomechanics, it’s kind of a new club. I see this going on with aging research. There’s a lot about fitness. My PhD work implicated that strength in quadriceps is really important in just maintaining functional capacity—living independently, and therefore quality of life. I don’t see how this also can’t just go further in people who experience neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s. Strength and conditioning isn’t just making your muscles bigger or stronger, it’s making them work more effectively, being more efficient in your movement.


(PA): Thank yous?

(MB): Shout out to my lab group: my supervisor, Dr. John Misiaszek. Tania, Sydney, and Keith in the lab.

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